UMass returning its focus to basketball after time in Washington

  • UMass senior guard Carl Pierre, right, drives to the basket defended by Josh Oduro (13) and AJ Wilson, Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass will return to the basketball floor for a game for the first time since Dec. 30 when the Minutemen host La Salle at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2021 7:25:43 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 7:25:28 PM

Basketball has both been the furthest thing from the UMass men’s basketball team’s minds and all the Minutemen want to get back to.

UMass hasn’t played since Dec. 30 when it lost to George Mason in double overtime. Since then, the Minutemen have had one game postponed because of positive COVID-19 cases in Saint Louis’ program and another because of Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Minutemen were about a mile away from the mob that stormed the Senate chambers.

“There was a lot of coverage of what was going on in D.C. and being down there was concerning and worrisome. It might have been tough to focus then,” UMass senior Carl Pierre said. “Being back now it’s a welcoming thing to be able to focus on basketball and it’s a way to relieve tension and stress with regards to what’s going on now.”

The team bus arrived at the hotel in Washington on Tuesday where some 30 Trump supporters were congregating at an indoor/outdoor bar, UMass coach Matt McCall said. They chanted “Trump” repeatedly at the players before switching to demeaning the incoming President-elect Joe Biden administration and saying how it will ruin their college careers. None of the players engaged with the supporters. They took their bags and walked into the hotel.

“The character that came out from our guys was second to none. It’s not easy to sit there and not retaliate. I couldn’t have been more proud of any win we’ve had, any basket being scored,” McCall said. “The fact that our guys showed that level of character showed me when they’re done playing this game they’re going to be part of everything that’s right in this country and fixing everything that’s wrong.”

McCall woke up early Wednesday morning. The coach needs his coffee. UMass’ hotel was close to the Capitol, so he saw people gathering even at 7 a.m. He rode the elevator down with some of them.

As the insurrection developed, McCall communicated with UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford and representatives from the Atlantic 10. It became clear quickly that the team needed to vacate the area, and they knew the game that night wasn’t happening when Mayor Muriel Bowser instituted a 6 p.m. curfew at 2:45 p.m.

McCall began strategizing with UMass director of basketball operations Brian Grossman and Matthew Houde, the Minutemen’s media relations contact, about the statement they would release and how to proceed. Would they go to Washington Dulles Airport and try to stay the night and play the game somewhere else Thursday? Could the team’s charter plane get them out of the area?

“It was all about safety,” McCall said.

They didn’t want to walk the team out of the front door because some of the protesters were staying at the hotel and returning. So the staff and team met on the second floor, then left through a back stairway that emptied to an alleyway. The bus met them at the end of the alleyway. A right turn took them toward the airport and away from the capitol.

The Minutemen arrived back in Amherst on Wednesday and have had time to reflect on the events and their path forward.

“It’s always going to be bigger than basketball. It highlights the different treatment of people based on skin color. We all know that if African Americans are out there protesting, peaceful or not, it would have been a different outcome,” Pierre said. “It was a general feeling of shock. It was historic day we haven’t seen anything like that. We were glad to be home and safe.”

The team plans to kneel before their 4 p.m. Saturday tipoff against La Salle. The game will be broadcast nationally on the NBC Sports Network. The knee won’t be during the national anthem since that part won’t be broadcast and would limit the impact of the statement. They’ll also wear their “Black Lives Matter” warm up shirts.

“When you have a platform to show what you stand for, I think it’s powerful,” McCall said. “That’s what we’ll have. I support our players 1,000% and am very, very proud of them.”

ON LA SALLE — The Minutemen beat La Salle 85-66 when they first met in mid-December. Tre Mitchell scored a career-high 37 points, and UMass pulled away in the second half.

“They’re a different team. They have the same personnel but they’ve played a lot of games since us. They’re playing inspired,” McCall said. “We made a tremendous amount effort plays at their place, and with how hard they play I think that’s what these games come down to. It’s not going to be the same, it’s not going to be an easy game. We have to match that intensity.”

UMass is the highest scoring team in the A-10 (86.8 points per game), while La Salle prefers a more controlled, defensive game. The Explorers have the second-highest 3-point percentage in the conference (39.8 percent) and defend the 3 better than anyone except St. Bonaventure, holding their opponents below 28% from beyond the arc.

“We’ve got to come out of the gate aggressive and make La Salle play our game not play theirs,” Mitchell said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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